On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

"I am Chabad, I am Aish, I am Birthright, I am March of the Living, I am JWRP... I am a Jew who is striving to get closer to God and make this world a better place."

I want to share with you an article that was written by Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale, Executive Director of Aish in South Florida. He writes in response to a Pew Research Poll that came out this week regarding the state of the Jewish population in North America.

by Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale, Executive Director of Aish in South Florida

There is a lot of hand-wringing and distressed looks going on right now in the American Jewish world. According to a recent article making the rounds concerning the state of American Jewry by the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project, things are looking pretty grim.

The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews - a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.


Now while I agree there are some very disturbing issues and trends in the Jewish world regarding unaffiliated Jews - Hey, this is what I do for a living! - I find this study somewhat skewed and almost worthless. Why? Because they left out Chabad. As the article goes on to say:

Reform Judaism remains the largest American Jewish movement, at 35 percent. Conservative Jews are 18 percent, Orthodox 10 percent, and groups such as Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal make up 6 percent combined.

Whoa, hold on a second. I don't see any mention of Chabad in there. Chabad you ask? You betcha! According to the Union of Reform Judaism website, there are 875 Reform synagogues in the United States and Canada. But Rabbi Motti Seligson from Media Relations for Chabad.org told me that there are 959 Chabad centers (part of over 1500 Chabad institutions) just in theUnited States alone. That is more than the so-called strongest branch of Judaism in the USA.

And this is precisely why this study is practically meaningless. It is based on a completely outdated model and mentality and has totally ignored the most dynamic movement in Judaism in recent years.

Furthermore, the folks at Pew are using categories of Jews from the 50's and 60's that have almost wholly changed since then. To illustrate, let's talk about my niece who is in her first year at Wilfred Laurier University in WaterlooOntario. She has attended Chabad for Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shabbat dinners in the little amount of time she has been in college.

Now, if they were to approach her for this survey, she wouldn't say she is Orthodox because she knows what that is and isn't there (yet). She certainly is not Reform because she has zero affiliation with that movement. She would probably call herself Conservative given these choices, but that would be bogus because she really does not go to a Conservative synagogue unless there is some sort of simcha/happy occasion like a Bar Mitzvah. However she does attend Chabad more than most Conservative or Reform members attend their respective synagogues and yet there is no Chabad option to check.

And then there is another point - the holy grail of membership. This is another completely meaningless factoid in defining Jewish affiliation in our day and age. Who cares if someone is a card-carrying member of a synagogue or not?! There are plenty of people who come to Aish regularly who are not official "members" to us or any synagogue.

Yet the simple reality is that these folks are more actively Jewish than many official "members" of synagogues who may show up once or twice a year for Kol Nidrei or a relative's Bar Mitzvah. Hence these people would be categorized as "just Jewish" which according to this survey implies failed Jew; hardly the truth.

Don't get me wrong, I am acutely aware that there are all kinds of challenges facing American and Western Jewry regarding intermarriage, assimilation and the like. But we need a balanced view to see the reality of the situation. And this report simply does not do that by the egregious omission of Chabad in particular and the Bal Teshuva movement in general whereby hundreds of thousands of Jews from all different backgrounds are exploring their Judaism and Jewish definition of themselves in countless ways. We are far from a blip and certainly should not have been outright ignored.

So for the vast number of Jews who are on different levels and paths in their own personal journey of what it means to be Jewish and who go to Chabad for Sukkot or log onto aish.com or defend Israel through AIPAC or have made the commitment not to eat shell-fish - for those Jews perhaps we need to smash some old paradigms and need a new category of Jew.

So I propose that inasmuch as they are the most visible and numerous and therefore ought to get the naming rights, we should now have another category of Jew in addition to the Reform etc. designations - the Chabad Jew. And just like Kleenex® and Jello® have morphed beyond their initial limited product names into generic words for tissues and gelatin desserts, so too Chabad® can now become the expansive term for exploring Jew. (Isn't that ironic coming from an Aish rabbi?)

And the more I think of it, the more it makes sense. Chabad is an acronym for Chachmah, Binah and Da'at - Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge. And that's exactly what these Jews are doing - they are, each in his or her own way, trying to get a bit more wisdom, understanding and knowledge of who they are and from whence they came as they continue in their personal journey of how our Torah, Mitzvot and Judaism can bring a little bit more peace, enjoyment and meaning in their lives.

But in the meantime, the next time someone comes up to you and asks you what kind of Jew you are, look them in the eye and tell them, "I am Chabad, I am Aish, I am Birthright, I am March of the Living, I am JWRP... I am a Jew who is striving to get closer to God and make this world a better place."

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